Counterpoint: We Don’t Need No Stinking Bike Tax

BadgersBike

Says this guy. Probably. (Image Source: Youtube)

Last week fellow streets.mn writer David Levinson made the case for a Bicycle Trust Fund based on a registration fee, sales tax, or some other means. There was some good discussion in the comment section, and I don’t necessarily disagree with the premise that users should pay for infrastructure. I fully support drivers paying for not only the full share of their direct infrastructure costs, but also mitigate congestion through tolling, better parking pricing, and the host of external costs not paid by drivers (ex. pollution). Similarly, I don’t advocate for free transit (though it’s a complicated discussion, as David has also written).

But in the case of local streets, I disagree that a trust fund for bike infrastructure would be very productive. I’ll try to convince you why!

Background

You’ve probably seen similar posts in the past on urban- or bike-centered blogs and advocacy sites. I’m even cool enough to save you a Google search (or Bing, I won’t judge). They go something like this:

  1. Most cyclists (or families where kids ride) own cars and pay wheelage taxes, registration, license fees, etc.
  2. Cycling infrastructure is much cheaper to build and maintain than auto-oriented infrastructure, and bikes cause a very small fraction of wear and tear on roads
  3. Bikes have nearly no negative externalities relative to cars, which pollute, kill or severely injure many in collisions, and sometimes de-value nearby properties
  4. Operating a bicycle is something a child can do

These are all great points, and I want to unpack some Twin Cities-specific data to support the argument. But the last one is an important premise–riding a bike is more like walking than driving (or even using transit).

KidBikingOpenStreets

Not pictured: the rest of the bike gang (Source: Open Streets Minneapolis)

I barely remember learning to ride my bike. I certainly don’t remember learning to ride a tricycle. I was 15 when I was first legally allowed to drive (under parental supervision), and 16 for solo drives. Other countries require even more age & wisdom. It’s possible for kids as young as 6 to safely navigate through a city by bike to school in the Netherlands.  Along with the very low cost of entry ($60 gets you a preeeetty sweet ride), this makes me lump biking in the “basic mode of transportation” camp rather than something more complex and expensive.

(It’s why I snarkily responded in the super-secret email chain that we don’t charge a sidewalk fee on shoes; why should we charge for bicycling?)

Who Pays for Our City Streets?

Common argument: “Drivers pay user fees, that’s why streets and roads accommodate them.”

Great. Let’s be more specific. You may recall that our streets in Minneapolis fall under functional classifications and may be owned or designated as a state aid street or highway. But how does the share shake out?

MplsLaneMileBreakdown

Here you go.

Just about 60% of all the pavement in Minneapolis (not counting alleys) is owned, operated, and maintained by the city. Another 30% or so are CSAH and MSAS routes, of which only part of the expenses (fixing potholes, plowing, operating street lights, etc) comes from user fees. Hennepin County gets money for its state aid highways from the Highway Trust Fund, as does Minneapolis for municipal state aid streets.

Based on county & city budgets we know the total spend from both Public Works departments (not including parking) is around $69 million in 2014 for roads within Minneapolis. Those very same budget documents detail state aid amounts. Since MnDOT took in less in user fees than it spent (by about 8%), we know that the state contributed about $7.5 million to Minneapolis street spend. Finally, we can guesstimate Minneapolis’ resident contribution to the county’s wheelage tax: roughly 210,000 vehicles in the city at $10 per year is about $2.1 million. In total, users pay for $9.6 million, or only 14% of total transportation spending. This ignores the lost tax base from highways and freeways alone, which I estimated at $43 million for Minneapolis.

Pay attention the next time you drive around on a city street. What percent of the space between buildings is used for moving and parking cars? Is it more than 14%? Probably. That gap, the 86% difference, is basically all general fund. Minneapolis can, and should, use it to allocate spending and public right of way as it sees fit to best serve its residents and businesses.

Facility Costs, Land-Use Opportunity Costs

A very common counterargument is to point out how much less damage bikes do to road surface due to their weight, and damage scales exponentially with weight. That’s nice, but road costs to handle additional weight don’t scale exponentially. But that doesn’t mean a bike lane doesn’t still cost far less than a lane for cars:

One data point, there are many. (Source: VPTI)

One data point, there are many. (Source: VPTI)

The city could turn lanes into cycle paths, move the same (or more!) number of people per hour, and actually save money doing it. It’s perplexing to ask a group of people who could lower the cost of government to pay for their infrastructure when the more expensive users are only covering 14% of the transportation budget through user fees. We know there’s a good chunk of Minneapolitans living within biking distance of their jobs (and, presumably shopping/entertainment/etc.) who drive instead — 20-30% depending on your distance threshold. I’ve said it before, but this:

Vauban, Germany

I strayed from my norm and picked a 20th century example (Vauban, Germany. Source: bikeportland.org)

…is the basic level of infrastructure, and cyclists fit into that picture very nicely. Building streets (and their collectors/arterials/etc.) for cars is the expensive part (please don’t take that statement as “ban cars from streets!!!”).

The last point I’ll hammer home is the opportunity cost in property taxes. Our current land-use intensity combined with lacking bike (and transit) infrastructure makes new development more difficult than it should be. Neighbors fear parking and congestion nightmares, parking minima prevent some lower development forms, and required travel demand management plans discourage infill thanks to years of catering to the automobile on city streets. There’s a non-zero opportunity cost associated with that, and I’m probably too lazy to give it a go. But somehow cities like Amsterdam, Copenhagen, etc., manage to fit way more people and businesses per square mile without all traffic hell breaking loose. Better travel options means more development is possible without creating a car-congested nightmare, bringing more city revenue as a result (and adding to local accessibility in the process, a virtuous cycle).

Conclusion

It’s probably true that we could be clever and structure the fee to avoid charging for kids, mitigate the impacts to citizens with lower income, prevent racial profiling, and even reduce the cost of overseeing such a system to keep most of the revenues for building and not bureaucracy. (NOTE: I’m not dismissing these valid issues, just saying I agree we could probably mitigate them if we think hard enough.) But those aren’t necessarily reasons why charging bicyclists is a good idea, just that it isn’t a horrible one. We should pursue a strategy that uses our street space more efficiently, saves the city money while doing it, allows more development and tax base, with all the happy positive externalities. There’s just no need to charge cyclists in the process.

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14 Responses to Counterpoint: We Don’t Need No Stinking Bike Tax

  1. Mike Sonn
    Mike Sonn January 12, 2015 at 9:39 am #

    My “bike tax” is the extra ROW fees I pay for living on a corner lot.

    I got 6 or so of you covered. Just buy me a beer sometime.

  2. Adam Miller
    Adam Miller January 12, 2015 at 9:56 am #

    I’d argue that bikes have positive externalities, in that using them involves exercise which in general makes people healthier.

    Which is a good reason to subsidize them with infrastructure.

    • Alex Cecchini
      Alex Cecchini January 12, 2015 at 10:16 am #

      Yeah, I agree, even the last sentence notes that. More savvy bike-detractors can accurately claim cars do have positive externalities (increasing range of customer base, for example). We should just be specific in noting the positive bike ones are typically ones that cars are neutral-to-negative.

      • Mike January 12, 2015 at 2:24 pm #

        I’m having trouble wrapping my head around this positive externality of cars idea. Is the “transaction” (to use econ-speak) that generates the externality: the use of cars, the provision of roads, or the development of the car as a technology? Or something else?

        • Alex Cecchini
          Alex Cecchini January 12, 2015 at 2:35 pm #

          I’ve seen multiple arguments. The use of cars makes it possible to shop at a larger range of stores/restaurants/etc than otherwise possible. The provision of roads is believed to have positive externalities by allowing more efficient emergyency vehicle response times (which has been rightly contested by urbanists, citing grid efficiencies, shorter distances, fewer accidents, etc).

          I’m not defending the arguments, just that clearly the general public (and most politicians) believe cars have a positive economic/social impact.

  3. Dana DeMaster
    DanaD January 12, 2015 at 10:00 am #

    I live on a corner, too. It’s a big, non-standard lot and we shovel the sidewalk to the pavement as well so buy me beer as well. Didn’t Mayor Coleman say recently that 80 percent of roads in St. Paul are paid for by local property taxes? I already pay for bike infrastructure. We just need to convince some people that their gas taxes don’t entitle them to much (unless they drive a Hummer in circles all day).

    Regardless what a specifically-funded tax is meant for, they are just bad ideas from a tax policy perspective. Carving out funding streams for specific things causes all sorts of distortions and weirdness. Ideally, taxes would go into a general fund and then our wise leaders would decide what the priorities are and spend accordingly. When too much of a budget is decided before the money is even there we end up being required to spend too much on those items at the expense of things that need more money. Or, at best, it just results in shifting money around but no real increase in spending to your targeted projects.

    Say, for example, we had a dedicated fund for arts, environment, and recreation. At the start of the fund, we are likely to see general fund money being shifted away from these things because decision-makers are aware of the dedicated funds. But, perhaps the lowered funding from the general fund isn’t as large as the dedicated fund so there is less money spent in this area. Or, the special fund as certain rules or eligiblity requirements so the money is targeted to a narrower group and other things we used to fund lose out.

    Eventually, there may come a budget cycle when we decide we have enough arts, environment, and recreation or we have a terrible catastrophy and need more money to fight zombies or recuild an area decimated by fracking trains crashing. We will already be committed to spending on arts, recreation, and environment rather than the zombies and fracking trains. Bad idea.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke January 12, 2015 at 10:08 am #

      i could write a grant for zombie annihilation social practice

    • Alex Cecchini
      Alex Cecchini January 12, 2015 at 10:25 am #

      I guess in general, for things like transportation, it seems like dedicated funding streams are a good idea. We have an over supply of roads specifically because there is no feedback loop between use (perceived value derived from travel) and revenue on specific corridors. Benevolent/wise leaders decide that since their driving constituents scream for capacity increases on XX road they must provide it, and a slush fund (or debt) helps them do it. They rarely explore other options (congestion tolls, improving transit, etc).

      I actually would be fine with a county-wide bike registration for long-distance bike facilities. The regional trails, etc that get people from one place to another. My argument was mostly for city streets, for which users of any mode don’t really pay for right of way construction/maintenance.

      • Peter Roethke January 15, 2015 at 6:09 pm #

        “in general, for things like transportation, it seems like dedicated funding streams are a good idea.”

        I wonder if perhaps the opposite is true. Dedicated funding streams remove issues from the arena of political debate. This is what happened with the dedication of gas tax proceeds to highway construction. De-politicization was more likely the cause of the oversupply of highways than overt demands by the constituents of politicians.

        (See, for example, Wells’ “Fueling the Boom: Gasoline Taxes, Invisibility, and the Growth of the American Highway Infrastructure, 1919–1956”, http://jah.oxfordjournals.org/content/99/1/72.full.pdf+html)

        For the operating budgets of transit authorities, the opposite may be true (a notorious case is WMATA in DC, as I understand it, WMATA has to beg Maryland, Virginia, DC, and the federal government annually for money). But for capital budgets, de-politicization seems like a bad idea because it empowers “experts” to make decisions that are properly within the political realm.

  4. Nathaniel M Hood
    Nathaniel January 12, 2015 at 12:01 pm #

    Who would have to register in Minneapolis? And, how would it effect people biking through? For example; I live in St. Paul, but spend a lot of time biking to and through Minneapolis. How would something like this apply to me? Would just residents of that municipality have to pay?

    • Alex Cecchini
      Alex Cecchini January 12, 2015 at 12:20 pm #

      I think that’s why David may have proposed a county-wide (or, failing that, a Mpls/StP joint effort) fee. If Hennepin County + St Paul were in on it, you’d greatly reduce the number of free riders from outside the area.

      But, politicians and planners don’t ask that question for streets re: cars today. Like I pointed out, CSAH/MSAS funding for Minneapolis only covers 14% of street costs. So someone from St Louis Park is subsidized by 86% when driving in to our city. Leaders have decided pursuing that strategy rather than building a larger population and tax base within the borders via auto-focused infrastructure (that prioritizes longer journeys) is the best way to go. I disagree.

  5. Matt Steele
    Matt Steele January 12, 2015 at 12:48 pm #

    I’m wondering if a bicycle tax/fee would even be constitutional, if it’s required to legally operate on municipal streets. In fact, I’d love to see this challenge to that Ft. Lauderdale, FL law that police use to harass minorities (though the law was already repealed)…. Wouldn’t this fit under interstate commerce somehow? That if it’s legal to ride a bicycle in Hudson, WI unlicensed, then it should be legal to ride said unlicensed bicycle into Minneapolis? I don’t know how that would play out. But I’m not going to bother thinking about it, since the notion of bike tax/fees is ridic for a variety of other reasons.

  6. David Levinson
    David Levinson January 15, 2015 at 4:34 pm #

    Let me ask the question one more time, and this is a general question: Do you have as much money as you need to do what you want? If you do, then stop, ask for no more money. If you don’t, feel free to ask others for money, but don’t be surprised when they don’t give it to you. (As has largely been the case to date in the case of bicycle infrastructure.) Spending other people’s money is easy, but bad policy.

    I disagree profoundly that putting everything into general revenue and relying on wise leaders to allocate the funds is remotely a good idea. It assumes far too much wisdom and knowledge on the part of leaders. Now we shouldn’t carve out general revenue for specific spending, but we certainly should use specific revenue for specific spending – this is the idea of user fees.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller January 15, 2015 at 9:52 pm #

      Things with positive externalities should not be paid for solely with user fees.

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